Fighting On On On? The Strikes and its Aftermath

Many local people see the strike as something not to be talked about, something to be left in the past and not brought up. Others are prepared to talk about the strike, but only in private. Several of our volunteers will leave a room when the strike is mentioned. A number of contemporaries recommended for us not to include the strike on this site, because to do so would reopen old wounds and trigger painful memories. We have not set out to do so. However, after to talking to lots of local people, many of whom were involved themselves, we felt that to ignore the events of 1984-5 would be to ignore one of the most important and defining episodes in the history of this community.

Strikes had long brought social tension to this area. Men had been isolated and their family’s businesses boycotted for going back to work in previous disputes. Families had been torn apart when men had gone back in. For the men who stayed out, the material and psychological hardships of being without work were very sharp indeed. All these were to happen again in 1984-5 and much more.What made the 1984-5 strike so different to previous strikes was that it was something far more than a conflict over pay, hours or working conditions. It was not just a tipping point in who held power at the pit, between managers and men, although it certainly was this too, but the very future of Britain’s pits. From what witnesses have said, there was a sense soon into the strike, if not before, that it was the very future of the industry that was at stake.

A major strike had been on the cards for a while. Several local men cite a steel dispute, which many had seen first hand in Sheffield, as the first indication that the miners would be targeted soon after. This is the overwhelming sense when talking not just to men who worked at the pit and their wives, but almost everyone in the area, that the strike was something the government were intent of provoking at some point – although views on how the strike was triggered cause more discussion, at least in private.

There have been suggestions that management knew that something was going to happen - but none have told us as much themselves. One manager told a group of miners that they wouldn’t be looking out for him in a few months time, after they guided him through some old workings in late 1983 – as soon as the strike started they realised what he had meant. Key management, less than a dozen in number, gathered for briefing and discussions before the strike started - this has been mentioned by several men, but were perhaps routine meetings. Several managers had been trained to do jobs needed to keep the pit running in the event of a strike. Whatever the truth in these accounts and anecdotes, they contribute towards the understanding locally that the strike was planned for, by both the coal board and the government.

The story of the strike itself is well versed and can be read on many websites and in hundreds of books. In 1984, the NUM, Britain’s most powerful union and a potentially very sharp thorn in the side of Thatcher’s Conservative government, launched a strike. For months, and through the autumn and winter of 1984-5, the majority of Britain’s miners stayed out on strike, enduring significant hardship and generating images and symbols of strike action that remain powerful today. The banners held aloft by striking miners and women’s support groups, violent clashes between police and pickets, the equally determined and committed statements of Scargill on one side and Thatcher on the other: the Miners’ Strike remains one of the defining events of not just the 1980s but of Modern Britain.

At first, the strike in Kiveton was little different to anywhere else. The men stayed off work, a considerable number took to picketing at the tops of Pit Lane (Colliery Road) and Hard Lane. Others stayed at home and tried to get by, as is returned to below. Picketing was largely peaceful. The pit was quiet for days on end, an eerie silence one witness suggests, compared to the noise that normally echoed across the village. There were a few police to oversee things, local police mainly, who’d set up a base in the Colliery Offices. Things stayed this way for a while. Of course, the situation far from pleasant for the striking men: many families immediately felt the pinch of lost incomes and the apparent callousness of a welfare system which forbade benefits to those out on strike. Things soon changed. Kiveton Park Colliery is said to have had the unhappy distinction of being the first Yorkshire pit to have returned to work in 1926 and the same was true in 1984-5. However, as in 1926, it wasn’t as if the whole workforce went back in. A very small number, less than a dozen, went back first, amidst large police escorts, drawn predominantly from the Metropolitan police, and volleys of abuse from mass pickets. Kiveton was made an example of. The village was held under the national spotlight, with news cameras and reporters stood alongside hundreds of police and pickets in the streets. One manager was on holiday in Spain when the strike was broken: his wife was stood in the hotel bar when Kiveton Park suddenly appeared on Spanish TV. Such was the attention Kiveton received.

In the village itself, pressure increased and there were several violent clashes between police and pickets. Certain men who went back were particularly outspoken and became, and remain, targets of hate in the village. Local activists appeared on television to argue the case for the strike: from documentaries on Channel Four to full-blown debates on the Jimmy Young show: men who had been on picketing duty in Kiveton just a few hours before clashed with representatives of the government, police and public, in front of an audience of millions. (The photos of Kiveton pickets below were taken by Phil Maxwell).

Things were getting harder in Kiveton. Families were feeling the strain more and more. As at times of strikes and depression in the past, families in the village looked to time-honoured ways of generating income. Some did odd jobs. One miner, who was in full support of the strike, felt guilty for having had a job delivering buses through a mate while the strike was on. Others worked allotments, although there were also cases of vegetables disappearing. Coal picking took place on the pit tips, adults and children scouring for bits of coal to warm their homes – as had taken place during strikes since the nineteenth century. There was even outcropping, although not on the scale that had been witnessed in the 1920s.

The women’s support group worked tirelessly to raise support and money for those on strike, as did many supporters both at home and abroad. We’ve spoken to trade unionists in London who raised money specifically for Kiveton and know of support generated in other countries, as told by a local couple in Tom Hill’s documentary. The important archival material given by the local NUM secretary to Sheffield Archives lists all the support received by the union branch, including gifts in kind, from surrounding villages.

It was difficult to get by at any point in the strike, but it’s difficult for anyone who wasn’t there to imagine what the Christmas of 1984 was like for any mining community; parents relied on the union, charity and the goodwill of strangers miles away for presents for their kids.

Men started to drift back in more numbers as 1985 progressed and when the strike finished a grim march took place back to the pit, along Wales Road, with the union banner at its front and the women’s support group banner at its rear.

The strike marked the beginning of the end for the pit. Kiveton Park Colliery was never the same again, from the attitude of men and management to how the entire industry was run, as the next section explores. Exactly a decade on from the strike, in 1994-5, the men of Kiveton Park Colliery were working their last shifts and watching their pit getting demolished.

Certain events have gone down in local legend. Recounting humorous incidents in which the police were humiliated has served to vent the frustration and anger that many in the village have felt since the strike. For example, one inspector tried to demolish a snowman with his car but found to his cost that it had been built around a concrete bollard. Police manoeuvres and intimidation included smashing windows and cars with batons. On two notable occasions, police horses’ noses were pushed through miners’ windows and into shops – both times local women are said to have come up with very sharp retorts. When a woman was stopped from leaving her house on the Walesmoor estate by a London policeman, she politely enquired what he thought his wife might be getting up to, with him away from home. One time off Redhill, pickets managed to outmanoeuvre the police and a policeman in riot gear was left stranded and stripped of his kit. Such incidents are well known in the village.

It’s too simplistic to suggest the people were either for or against the strike. Very few people were against the striking men, although a few were. We’ve spoken to people who had left the village, and still understand the strike through the press reports they saw at the time and see it as angry hooligans seeking revolution or anarchy. Others were vehemently against the strike, including spokesmen amongst the handful of men who broke the picket lines. One man in particular has become a focus for local anger and has faced intimidation and anger ever since.

The vast majority supported the striking men, even if many wished the strike had never taken place, and did everything they could to help the village get through the hard times the strike brought. Amongst those who fully supported the striking men, and stood by their union, several remain angry at the union for lack of support their families received. One man has suggested he didn’t get food parcels because he wasn’t involved in picketing. Several witnesses have repeated a rumour that went around the village that a local union man had a house filled with Christmas presents. This is very unlikely to say the least, there is absolutely no proof that this was the case and very strong suggestions to the contrary, but it is an indication of the strength of the rumours that swept through the village. Many if not all union men suffered just as much as other men in the village. One man’s baby son had to wear pink clothes because there was no money to buy him new.

The divides created by the strike are still deep. Just a few weeks ago, a former picket was ignored by a former deputy with whom he’d clashed on the picket line. In the past year, several women and men have been brought to tears talking about the strike, the emotions it brought up perhaps not as raw as they were at the time but still strong.

The Strike also brought outsiders to Kiveton to witness what was understood at the time, quite rightly, as being ‘a crucible of tension’ provoked by the strike. We owe particular thanks to Laura C Goebelsmann, Anima Berten, Phil Maxwell and Susan Carlyle, for their contributions, insights and impressive photographic work they have sent from London and Germany respectively. Each of these pass messages of support and indeed solidarity to the people of Kiveton Park they became very close to in those months of 1984-5. Of course, considerable thanks go to all those from the village itself who have been prepared to talk to us.